José Ordovas sips a mint tea in a languid café in Madrid, Spain. His eyes scan two mobile phones as he confirms his next appointments. In conversation, he switches effortlessly between Spanish and English to find the right expressions. If the geneticist seems to be moving on a different wavelength from the other patrons, he could blame it on the jet lag: he has just flown from Boston where it’s now 5am. This is his third overseas trip this month, but Ordovas contends his frequent visits from Tufts University, where he’s based, to Europe have no adverse effects. “For me the time difference doesn’t matter, I’m up at 4am to make calls to Europe when I’m home anyway, and then I’m up late on calls to California,” he says.
Ordovas embodies the hustle and bustle of the ‘big science’ approach that has changed nutrition research in the past decade. This field, once confined to small groups of researchers studying the effects of single nutrients — such as particular vitamins or proteins — on a few dozen volunteers, is now adopting the heavy-lifting tools developed for genetics and pharmaceutical research. It also has a catchy name: nutrigenomics. And the more that researchers learn how our genes interact with our diet, the more they appreciate the deeper insight gained by an interdisciplinary approach. Such knowledge could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease or, for example, improve the design of weight-loss diets.
A molecular biologist could face a prison sentence for criticizing a report on transgenic gene spread. Ernesto Bustamante Donayre, vice president of the Peruvian College of Biologists, a professional organization, stands accused of defamation, a criminal offense, which in Peru can carry a prison term or fine. What triggered the suit was his public criticism of a report prepared by Antonietta Ornella Gutiérrez Rosati, a biologist at the La Molina National Agricultural University in Lima, identifying a P34S promoter and NK603 and BT11 transgenes in 14 of 42 maize samples from the Barranca region. Gutiérrez sent summaries of her findings to both the National Agricultural Research Institute and El Comercio newspaper in 2007 calling for a moratorium on transgenic crops until biosafety regulations are in place to prevent the spread to human food. Bustamante, a frequent contributor to radio and print, with no financial links to crop companies, described the alleged detection of three simultaneous transgenic events from two firms as “absurdly improbable” in his newspaper column and called for her claims to be peer reviewed.
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Thoroughbred horse owners now have a new tool to predict howtheir nags will perform on the track. Last week at the IrishThoroughbred Breeders’ Association Expo in County Kildare, anew company called Equinome rolled out a €1000 DNA test of amuscle factor derived from the Horse Genome Project.
Muscle growth is governed by myostatin, a protein that determineswhether an animal has compact muscles tuned for rapid sprintsor a leaner body suited for endurance. Company co-founder EmmelineHill, left, a genetics researcher at University College Dublin,and colleagues reported last month in PLoS ONE that horses withtwo copies of the myostatin-suppressing C variant of the genewere more likely to win short races up to 6.5 furlongs (1.3kilometers), whereas horses with two T variants did better inraces up to 13.5 furlongs.
Horse Genome Project coordinator Ernest Bailey of the Universityof Kentucky, Lexington, notes that breeders have adopted genetictests for paternity, coat color, and diseases but that performanceprediction is new ground. Hill says breeders have been askingabout genes for temperament. That’s not yet in the offing, shesays, but “we’re investigating gene associations with [other]parameters, such as aerobic capacity.”
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Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have families, too, according to a study that uses the detailed genetic relationships of bacterial strains to map out how certain infections spread within hospitals and countries. The genomic-sequencing technology that made the study possible could one day enable hospital administrators to track infections back to the individuals and objects that transmit them, say the study authors.
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